Back in November 2017, I was invited to be part of a panel at The Music Mark Conference entitled “Securing the Future of Music in the Curriculum – Instrumental Skills v Music Knowledge”, a title which forced me to hone some thoughts into a 5m presentation and which I have continued to reflect on since.
The panel was co-ordinated by Dan Francis who has summarised his presentation in a blog post here and this is a good overview of some of the background to the choice of title for the session as well as some insights into the current music education sector in the UK.
I chose to focus on the skills vs knowledge aspect of the title and I had in mind mainly KS3 music because that’s the most likely place most students will get some music at school as the entitlement to music in UK state schools continues to diminish.
Examples of a skills-based approach in music
I hear quite often now about music teachers choosing to follow a ‘skills-based’ curriculum at KS3.
Looking at some of the online discussion and in visits to schools, this approach looks to be students learning music through playing music, the musical knowledge and understanding then growing from the experience of actually creating something musical.
When thinking at its most basic level about a skills-based approach, I think about the idea of learning to play a musical instrument in a classroom context. With this in mind I am reminded of the year 9 class all sat at keyboards wearing headphones playing Ode to Joy on Keyboards from notation.
In this scenario, the learning starts from prescribed repertoire using materials that have been chosen or made for the learners and the music itself often only exists after the process has been completed.
To access the task, students in this class need to know how to use the materials they have been given. (It might help to have heard the music as well, but it isn’t essential to have done so).
As a contrasting example, the teacher leading this class at Shrewsbury International School, Bangkok, also follows what he calls a skills-based curriculum. In this lesson, year 7 are getting under the skin of Electronic Dance Music through playing along, breaking down the patterns and then composing their own beats to then be transferred to computers.
Later the sounds can be manipulated and explored through technology. The teaching starts from what exists within the music and builds from there.
Students in this class need to know how to respond to the music they hear and adjust their responses appropriately. For them, the answers lie within the music and finding them is an experience of discovery.
It seems there’s some variety within this ‘skills-based’ approach. So digging deeper, can we define a difference between developing instrumental skills (in the sense of knowing how to play something) as the first example suggests and ‘musical skills’ (a bit more holistic) in the second?
And does one approach engage students more than another?
Or perhaps it’s not the curriculum content and choice between skills or knowledge that’s important after at all, but the teaching, the approach, the relationships?
More on that in my next post.
And so what of ‘knowledge’?
First we have Nick Gibb’s narrative about the importance of the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum, this recent speech being just one example, see his Twitter feed for more!
I’m not sure I’m confident about what this means in practice for music especially when you throw in the multitude of other seemingly diametric options available to teachers informal/formal, theory/playing, notation/no notation, prepare for GCSE/prepare for something else and on and on and on it goes.
Should the emphasis be on knowing about music, knowing pieces of music or knowing how to do something related to music (see Swanwick/Phillpot for more thinking on this)
John Finney has recently written a series of blog posts articulating the need for some clear pathways through the ‘conceptual confusions’ around all of this and he articulates this so much better than I can.
But one final thought.
Should this debate be better defined by musical pathways, for example by the content in GCSE/A Level (and international/vocational equivalents)? These seem to test some aspects of musical knowledge, understanding, theory, language etc. at a point at which making a judgement about the effectiveness of music education in schools seems logical.
The balance of skills and knowledge within such qualifications is apparent, yet the concept of KS3 as preparation for GCSE when just 6 or 7% of students take that qualification doesn’t feel right either.
Perhaps what’s being tested at this level doesn’t always join up to that aspirational line of progression through classroom music in ways which make it easy for music teachers to bring students through in just a classroom setting. ie. Do GCSE and A levels in music really test what can be achieved only through a classroom music experience regardless of whether that’s skills or knowledge? I’m not convinced they do and it doesn’t help teachers find a simple route through this minefield of choices and decisions.
Perhaps the answer lies in what it means to be ready to take GCSE-so defining the required balance of skills and knowledge (and ENGAGEMENT with classroom music) necessary to access those examinations courses.
Arguably it’s a failure to find a balance between all 3 of these essential ingredients that have resulted in the precarious situation music is now in in schools with its low numbers, high costs, just for the few and irrelevant to the rest.
Chuck in the appalling lack of subject specific CPD for music teachers and the decline in university-based teacher training and it’s no wonder we don’t seem to be making much progress (pun intended) with all this.
Despite the wealth of research, papers, journals, chapters, books that exist on the topic of music education, many teachers still end up with a KS3 pick and mix of topic-based 6 week ‘schemes of work’ that follow the listen to music, be told about the music, play some of the music (if you’re lucky) go into groups and make up some music, perform and assess and then repeat pattern, with little consideration for exactly what is being learned (and built upon) in terms of skills or knowledge.
So what happens if you strip out all the background noise and just look at what is in front of you. Then what might be found?
My next two posts will unpick some experiences that have helped form some of my thinking about this.
The first, published as a guest blog for Musical Futures International, is about what happens when all you have between teacher and learners is the music. The second is about what happens when students make some of the choices and what can be learned from that.
But I want to finish with something that Steve Jackman, teacher of the year 7 class in the video above said when he summed up his approach to music in his school.
If you spend 3 years learning about swimming, you would expect to be able to swim at the end of it.
Perhaps after all the answer is that simple. Start with the end in mind.
- Steve Jackman @sjeeves
- John Finney @JohnFinney8
- Musical Futures International @mufuinternat
- Trinity College London @TrinityC_L
- Anna Gower @tallgirlwgc
- Dan Francis @danfrancismusic